The Last Airbender’ Was So Groundbreaking 20 Years Ago – The Hollywood Reporter

Water. Earth. Fire. Air. In 2005, these four elements opened up a whole new world.

A world filled with history, heroes, villains, deities and immense powers. While it has been said by pundits on numerous occasions that there will never be another modern mythology the likes of Middle-Earth, Star Wars or Harry Potter, they were simply looking in the wrong place. There is an expectation that our great sagas must stem from novels and live-action projects, but it was animation that brought the power of Avatar: The Last Airbender to life and helped to change the way Western audiences thought about serialized animation and what constitutes as children’s programming.

As the live-action remake series, adapted from its animated predecessor, makes its debut on Netflix this week, now feels like the perfect time to reflect on its continued impact nearly 20 years since it premiered.

Within the world of original series The Last Airbender, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created an expansive saga inspired by Chinese mythology, Japanese anime, Asian philosophies and martial artistry. But it was more than simply a world indebted to Eastern influences, which many Western viewers may not have been aware of. DiMartino and Konietzko dreamed up an emotionally involving cast of characters led by Aang, Katara, Sokka, Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh, all of whom brought new weight to the timeless stories of good versus evil (neither approached as absolutes), and the possibility for hope and redemption.

The show, which premiered on Nickelodeon in 2005, immediately broke records, becoming the highest-rated animated series in its demographic, and garnered critical acclaim that led to multiple Annie Awards and an Emmy. Beyond the creation of a new mythology and compelling characters, what was it about The Last Airbender that led to such an immediate enthusiastic response and a fandom that far exceeded its target demographic?

I’ll admit, I was a latecomer getting onto the Avatar monorail. The series began when I was in high school, and past the point of watching Nickelodeon. I unfairly wrote it off as simply a children’s show once I realized that this series was not in fact associated with James Cameron’s then long-gestating, ambitious, sci-fi project, Avatar. Even when the live-action Last Airbender film was released in 2010, I avoided it, despite my deep appreciation for M. Night Shyamalan.

It wouldn’t be until 2012, four years after the series had ended in 2008, that a friend lent me the DVD collections of the three seasons. Despite my initial hesitancy, I dove in and quickly found myself immersed in the story Aang, the last airbender and the world’s most recent Avatar, destined to master all four elements and bring peace to a warring world held back by fear of the Fire Nation. I knew nothing of martial arts or Chinese mythology, wasn’t a major anime watcher and my knowledge of Asian philosophies extended about as far as yoga, and even that’s a bit of a stretch. But what grabbed me was how seriously the show approached its mature subject matters.

Yes, there was plenty of fun to be had with Aang and his friends and plenty of room for laughter, as humor was an essential part of the show’s identity. But when matters turned serious, they were handled with the emphasis and the ethical consideration they deserved. As the series progressed, darker issues were raised, and harder choices were made. But even the show’s pilot is built off the horrors of genocide, child abuse and imperialism as it relates to both Aang and Prince Zuko, and how those crimes not only impacted those characters but the whole world.

It’s those aspects that allowed the show to gain a reputation as being both a kid’s show and more than a kid’s show. The fact that adults could appreciate it didn’t cheapen or steal its importance to younger viewers either, as the messages and sentiments were universal. Perhaps, the harsher realities of the world and the reasons behind war, pain, terrorism and extremism were made easier to digest in the medium of animation.

The perspectives showcased in Avatar: The Last Airbender remind me a lot of the animated series I grew up watching like Batman: The Animated Series, and X-Men: The Animated Series, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Pixar, which contain pointed reflections of trauma, addiction, bigotry, loss and the powers of dreams and nightmares. DiMartino and Konietzko’s series came at a time when animated shows geared towards younger viewers were being scrubbed too clean, afraid to tackle anything important, and largely subsisting as sanitary background noise not meant to be disruptive in any way. Avatar: The Last Airbender, while certainly not the only animated project to do so, helped change that and create richer storytelling for children, pre-teens and young adults, all of whom are capable of handling storylines more mature than watching a character struggle with whether or not to cheat.

In 2012, Avatar: The Last Airbender was followed by a sequel series from DiMartino and Konietzko, The Legend of Korra, set 70 years after the initial Avatar series, and consisting of a new Avatar and a new cast of characters, while including past characters in new stages of their lives. Once again, the series pushed the boundaries of animation within its demographic and was ultimately credited with creating a space for LBGTQ representation in programming geared towards children in its depiction of the romance between Korra and Asami. Both Aang and Korra’s stories have continued in limited and ongoing comic book series, and DiMartino and Konietzko signed a deal with ViacomCBS in 2021 to form Avatar Studios, through which the two will create more series as well as theatrical animated movies set within the world of Avatar. It’s all proof of the series’ lasting impact, and the fact that it has grown well beyond what its creators or initial fans could’ve possibly imagined.

It’s been a worthwhile experience to see those who grew up with both or either animated series comment on the impact this world of Avatars and elements has had on their lives, their sense of self and finding their purpose. Above all else, what makes DiMartino and Konietzko’s creation so impactful is that it celebrates freedom — the freedom to create, destroy, rebuild, learn, fight, mediate, change and change again. It’s an epic odyssey of human experience driven by the core concept of letting characters exist as they are and choose not who they were meant to be, but who they want to be.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming on Netflix.

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